It’s 5 AM on Easter morning, and Wally’s World is dead. After three years and more than a hundred DIY shows, the rock ‘n’ roll speakeasy is calling it quits. In a few months, the building that’s been home to Wally’s World—at 2841 W. Belden, under the Blue Line tracks in Logan Square—will be demolished, as its new owner attempts to have the property rezoned for residential use. The shadow of gentrification hangs over all. Wally’s will not rise again.
But that’s not what the last days of Wally’s World—or the Walterplex, or Walden Pond, or Wall Drug, or the Walternate Universe—were all about. Rather then bemoan the venue’s inevitable fate, the people who ran it wanted to celebrate its life. For nine days, from March 18 through March 26, the venue held a wake, with a show every single night. I went to a majority of them (many of the bills included bands on my label, Tall Pat Records), and what I saw wasn’t mourning. Those who’d gathered reveled in the venue’s glory, exchanging tall tales and talking about life, the neighborhood, and the music—which most of the world would never hear.
To those who spent time at Wally’s, the place was more then just somewhere to get drunk late into the night, even though that was part of the fun. What made Wally’s and many of its fellow DIY spaces important was that it gave musicians a chance to find and build their audiences and grow as performers and songwriters. It was a place to experiment, to try out new sounds in front of a friendly crowd. The vibe was casual and easy—to be welcomed into the friendly confines of Wally’s World, all you had to do was show up.
You were always welcome to enjoy the music and get weird, as long as you didn’t do anything uncouth. For just about everyone, young and old, it was a place to be yourself, or at least figure out who that might be. Wally’s was where people would give you chance, and let you take risks that wouldn’t fly in the square world. Its rooms and hallways hummed with discussions about Hawkwind B sides, political activism, beer, books, you name it. The community born there extended beyond the borders of Logan Square.
To get the story of Wally’s World, there’s no better place to start than with Ian Wisniewski, who’s long been the face of the venue. Better known as Magic Ian, he runs the label Maximum Pelt and plays in the band Ego, who closed out Walter’s Wake Week on Saturday night; he also did most of the booking at Wally’s World. For him, Wally’s was the culmination of a lifetime of involvement in DIY music—he says he was playing basement shows at age 12 in what he calls a “political punk band.”
The Wally’s phenomenon grew organically, less through promotion than through quality shows. Bands constantly asked Ian to help get them shows, either at proper venues or at his own. As Wally’s World established itself, its reputation spread beyond the city—a crucial development—and soon just about every bill featured a touring band. As Ian puts it, “We are here to be a safe haven for bands from out of town.” All-local bills were few and far between, and when like-minded bands from different cities or different states ended up on the same show, it fostered connections that transcended the local DIY scene.
Michael Azerrad’s masterful 2001 book about the 1980s DIY scene, Our Band Could Be Your Life, makes a good lens for looking at Wally’s World. Like many of the bands Azerrad writes about, Wally’s was a totally do-it-yourself project, and like the VFW halls that Black Flag and their ilk played back in the day, it was part of a national network of unlicensed venues. Wally’s was a port of call where bands knew they’d have a good time and a good crowd and make a few bucks. In turn, all the road warriors passing through town helped bands from Chicago find out more about the rest of the country and book gigs on their own tours.
Wally’s World took the position that bands should be paid, which sounds like a no-brainer but sadly isn’t a universal practice. Many of the people who ran the venue had experience with other DIY spots where the money went to cover the venue’s expenses rather than to pay the artists. Running Wally’s wasn’t first and foremost about partying or making money, though—if the organizers wanted to do that, they could’ve easily thrown on an iPod and charged at the door. Having bands play was, according to Ian, about “promoting the arts and culture and music—and because it’s absurd that all the best music that exists in this world is not popular, and all the bad music that exists is popular.” Wally’s was an attempt to right that wrong, and paying bands was a crucial part of supporting the best music.
Ian found the building that became Wally’s because his girlfriend Karissa Talanian (of Eye Vybe Records and Lil Tits) used to live at a nearby DIY space called Ottoman Empire. He’d often walk his dog past the empty building on Belden and wonder about the sign saying it was for sale or lease. Ever since his prior DIY space, the Dells, had come to an end, he’d been trying to find a space where he could record music and host shows. Figuring it was worth a shot, he called the number on the sign, eventually convincing the building’s owner, Walter “Wally” E. Slager, to allow him to rent the space. Thus Wally’s World was born.
The building is almost perfect for shows. Because it’s right next to the Blue Line, the noise of the train drowns out the noise from bands and the conversations of folks congregating outside—it also causes the “Wally’s Pause” as the talkers wait for the train to pass. There are few nearby neighbors; the Blue Line blocks off the area around the building, and across the street are the rear entrances of Cole’s Bar and a number of other businesses on Milwaukee. The location, however, has made the land highly attractive to developers.
Thick plaster walls keep the sound in and give the live room a solid acoustic profile. The remnants of an office segment the space into a main performance area and a smaller, elevated room that works a little like a mezzanine; there’s also a basement area, where the music can waft in. It’s a bit like the Empty Bottle, where you can choose how involved you want to be in the show, whether right up front or hanging back.
Wally’s World was a key part of a wave of DIY spaces that started up around 2012, mostly in or around Logan Square. Most of the big ones are already gone. The house that held Animal Kingdom was foreclosed on, and it didn’t help that the folks who ran it pulled stunts like playing on the roof late at night, turning some neighbors against them. Young Camelot closed just weeks before Wally’s, after a police intervention. Mortville died in 2013, and the Bloodline a few years before that. Ottoman Empire wound down as Wally’s began. Wally’s World was the last DIY house of that era still standing, and though others will spring up, this does feel like the end of an era.
Of all the moments in that last week, none summed up the mood better than Chicago band Clearance, who closed their Wednesday-night set with a cover of the Clean’s “Anything Could Happen.” That song’s chorus, bursting from the PA and mixing with the crowd’s voices, rang out though the night: “Anything could happen, and it could be right now/ And the choice is yours, so make it worthwhile.” What comes next? Only those who’ve drawn inspiration from the time they spent at Wally’s World can say.